The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry Synopsis
Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.
Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.
Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him—allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.
And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy. (Amazon)
Of the dozen titles long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was one of only two that really interested me. I expected to be gushing over this novel in a similar vein to the gloriously life affirming, witty and charming Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Do not get me wrong, this is good novel, but there will be no gushing.
One feels deep empathy for Rachel Joyce’s lead characters as they travel on their respective journeys of self-discovery but not necessarily a genuine affection for them – at times I found myself frustrated with Harold and Maureen, almost to the extent that they were frustrated with themselves. Joyce did however provide some beautifully descriptive and poignant observations about human behaviour that I identified with.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is a very subtle but moving tale about the search for meaning in life.
The audio book narration by Jim Broadbent was first class. He differentiated between characters extremely well without overacting. His narration enhanced the book experience for me (listen to a sample).
The humour in this novel was dry and understated, producing fewer laugh out loud moments than I was hoping for. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a much darker and sadder story than I had anticipated also. Joyce lost some momentum (and my engagement) in the middle passages but came home strong with a gut wrenching conclusion. Have the tissues at the ready…
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is a good novel, but I am not sure it was necessarily deserving of its long-listing for the Man Booker Prize.
Finally, I pose a question for the literary officianados — is the title of this novel a nod to Byron’s poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage‘?
BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5
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BOOK DETAILS: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Audible); The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Amazon); The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (TheNile – Aus); The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Kobobooks)
Genre: Drama, Romance, Literature, Mystery, Audio
Author Information: Rachel Joyce has written over 20 original afternoon plays for BBC Radio 4, and major adaptations for both the Classic Series, Woman’s Hour and also a TV drama adaptation for BBC 2. In 2007 she won the Tinniswood Award for best radio play. She moved to writing after a twenty-year career in theatre and television, performing leading roles for the RSC, the Royal National Theatre, The Royal Court, and Cheek by Jowl, winning a Time Out Best Actress award and the Sony Silver. This is her first novel. She is currently at work on her second titled Perfect.